You’re going to read lots about The Light of Amsterdam by David Park. In fact, they might even engrave the 2013 Man Booker Prize now.
The first thing I read about this book was that it was “…destined to become an international literary bestseller…”. Wow – such expectation. It’s like the release of Franzen’s Freedom over again. Anyway, I took comfort in the fact that The Light of Amsterdam was attracting the right kind of attention, not just that of publicists. And before you think I’m heading toward a what’s-all-the-fuss-about review, know I’m not. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Here’s the blurb –
It is December; Christmas is approaching and the magic of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities beckons. A father looks for himself in the past, struggling to deal with a recent divorce, his teenage son in tow. A single, selfless mother accompanies her only daughter and friends for a weekend-long bachelorette party. And a husband treats his wife to a birthday weekend away, somehow heightening her anxieties and insecurities about age, desire, and motherhood.
During their brief stay in the city, the confusions and contradictions inherent in their relationships assert themselves in unexpected ways, forcing each couple into a sometimes painful reassessment and a new awareness of the price that love demands. As these people brush against one another in the squares, museums, and parks of Amsterdam, their lives are transfigured in the winter light as they encounter the complexities of love in a city that challenges what has gone before.
There are so many themes in this book that it’s screaming ‘Year 12 text’. I’m focusing on the one that resonated with me – the parent-child relationship. Park examines it on multiple levels – from the macro (Alan trying to get more than a grunt out of his teenage son, Jack; and Karen making sense of her daughter, Shannon’s, choices) to the micro (the one up-manship in a retirement home exercised by those whose kids actually visit on days other than Mother’s Day and Christmas). The result is somewhat startling – it’s uncomfortable reading in many instances (who hasn’t thought their child could ‘do better’?) and you can’t help but cast yourself into the parents’ roles. Would I be putting myself in Jack and Shannon’s shoes if I was a younger reader? Perhaps. That is the skill in Park’s story-telling.
Park creates tension from the outset with a multitude of small but unnerving blows – a performance review at work, a fear of flying, craving another’s touch. These form the backdrop for the bigger issues. The story moves along, seemingly for a neat and gentle conclusion. Which is why the ending truly surprised me. I won’t give anything away but it was a superb reminder that Park is in total control of this story.
While the themes are big and serious, Park has a lightness of touch that gives the book pace. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but there’s humour in the characters – the girls on a hen’s weekend and Gordon, the bloke who has shacked up with Alan’s ex-wife (described as a guy who is “good with his hands” and always wears polo shirts that feature either an “alligator or a horse on his left tit” – you know exactly the kind of guy Gordon is, don’t you?).
If I was going to super-critical I would say this – there is repetition of odd facts (for example the numerous references to Jack’s dyed black hair and the early evening mist) – I started to wonder if Park was forgetting that he’d already put that bit in….
Secondly, the book would have stood up without Marion’s story. As an ’empty-nester’ her narrative added another angle on the parent-child theme but it almost seemed as if Park hadn’t invested as much thought in Marion as he had with the other characters. Furthermore, Marion does something that made me think that she was completely unhinged (and therefore lost credibility as a character).
But as I said, that was nit-picking because the overall experience was simply lovely. It’s tricky to pull out quotes from The Light of Amsterdam without using large slabs of text. Park is not a pithy writer (and that’s not a criticism). Instead, the words creep up around you, bringing you along with the characters. And then out pops something so simple and succinct that it’s startling –
“…he tried to project a sense of casual indifference. It wasn’t easy because he knew that sooner or later love would blow it out of the water. Love was the unavoidable spanner in the works, the thing that stopped you walking away and made your pretence of calm control a hopeless lie that ultimately would force itself free from the heart and into the words you didn’t want to use.”
When I think about food and Amsterdam one thing automatically pops to mind – chips and mayo. It’s all about golden, chunky chips and creamy mayonnaise. Far out, I could go some now.
4/5 It was tricky rating this book because although I’m not pressing it on everyone I meet, I found it engrossing. In fact, I read it over the course of two days, creating opportunities for reading time – that speaks volumes, doesn’t it?